Beluga Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Beluga Whale

Delphinapterus leucas

Also known as

White whale, sea canary, beluga

Distribution

Throughout the Arctic ocean and the St. Lawrence Estuary

Ecosystem/Habitat

Shallow, coastal waters and near ice edge

Feeding Habits

Foraging predator

Conservation Status

Endangered/Threatened/Special Concern

Taxonomy

Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales); Family Monodontidae (white whales)

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Beluga whales are easy to spot, thanks to their white colour, large size and bulging forehead. At birth these pale whales aren’t white at all – they’re slate grey, and it can take up to eight years to develop their distinct white colour. They are unique among whales because they have very flexible necks and can move their head in almost any direction, separately from their body. They are also known as “sea canaries” because they are a chatty species. They are able to create such a wide variety of sounds due to the tissue in their large, bulbous forehead, called a melon, which is used to create and amplify sounds in the marine environment. The noises belugas make are both to communicate with their pod as well as to navigate. Belugas use echolocation to navigate in the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Beluga whales have rounded front, or pectoral, fins and they lack a dorsal fin, unlike most other whale and dolphin species. They have a very prominent, bulging forehead and a short, blunt snout. They grow to be three to four metres long, weighing anywhere from 250 to 1,000 kilograms.  Male belugas are larger than females.

In the wild, belugas can live for up to 75 years, reaching sexual maturity between eight to 14 years old for females and 12 to 14 years old for males. Although they reach sexual maturity at a fairly young age, they only breed once about every three years – in the late spring between April and June. After a gestation period of about 14 and a half months, the female will give birth to one calf around July or August. 

Throughout their life, they travel together in groups called ‘pods’, which typically range from two to 10 whales, however it is not uncommon to see larger pods. Most pods exhibit migratory behaviour, moving further south or out into open waters in the fall, when the ice starts forming closer to shore, before returning to coastal, summer areas for feeding, nursing young and moulting/shedding their skin. The only Canadian population of belugas that doesn’t appear to migrate significant distances is the St. Lawrence Estuary population.

Belugas are culturally important to many Inuit communities living in the Canadian Arctic. Their skin and blubber are harvested as a source of food and for other cultural traditions. These fisheries are highly regulated, but are recognized as being important for subsistence and cultural purposes. Belugas were targeted by the commercial whaling industry for about 200 years, but this practice ended in the 1970s. They were also a popular species targeted for the aquarium trade throughout the late 1900s, but there have been no live-captures for the aquarium trade since 1992. Today, belugas are not targeted by fisheries except in traditional Inuit fisheries, but are still impacted by fisheries and humans due to vessel strikes, entanglements in active and abandoned fishing gear, and competition for food with commercial and recreational fisheries. 

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has assessed and designated all seven populations of Beluga whales in Canadian waters as being at-risk; however only two populations are listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Their conservation status by population is listed below:

  • St. Lawrence Estuary population. COSEWIC listing: Endangered – 2014, SARA listing: Schedule 1 – Threatened
  • Ungava Bay population. COSEWIC listing: Endangered – 2004, SARA listing: Not listed
  • Western Hudson Bay population. COSEWIC listing: Special concern – 2004, SARA listing: Not listed
  • Eastern Hudson Bay population. COSEWIC listing: Endangered – 2004, SARA listing: Not listed
  • Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay population. COSEWIC listing: Special Concern – 2004, SARA listing: Not listed
  • Cumberland Sound population. COSEWIC listing: Threatened – 2004, SARA listing: Not listed
  • Southeast Baffin Island-Cumberland Sound. COSEWIC listing: Non-active– 2004, SARA listing: Schedule 2-Endangered

Oceana Canada is working to protect Canada’s oceans for species like the Beluga whale. Find out more about our campaigns and join us in helping to bring abundance back to the ocean.